The camcorder and the cassette recorder (the black one had an orange “Record” button–and I would swear in a court of law that there was a plastic red and white one, too) remind me how prominently performances figured in our playtime. Sometimes we’d require our ever-so-patient parents to watch or listen to the performances, and sometimes they were just for us. I mentioned before how much I loved the feeling of spoken words and phrases…though I don’t remember consciously articulating that thought as a kid, my memories of performing–radio plays, church skits, mugging for the video camera–are thoroughly visceral. Embodying a character (my over-the-top acting notwithstanding), feeling a different voice come out of my mouth, experiencing physical expression in an unfamiliar way: this is what stands out to me now as pleasurable. This, and the making things up part, of course. I love that Sharon remembers this as my not being afraid to be silly–because while I think this is absolutely true (I’ve always been a little on the side of ridiculous), it’s something I never really conceptualized in that way, because (at that young age, anyway) it never occurred to me as something to be afraid of. Being larger-than-life felt good, and though I actually was shy around people I didn’t know well, I reveled in the opportunities to perform when they arose–or better, when we created them.
Thinking of the characters we tended to play is really interesting to me, especially given who we’ve become later in life. (As a sidenote: Sharon, I can’t read that line about the leaf without laughing uncontrollably!) I loved Sharon’s Georgia Peach accent, and I used to picture the character Julia Sugarbaker from Designing Women every time she’d do it. That is to say, even though the voice was delicate and lilting, I always imagined the character as a woman who was not to be messed with–whose soft, polite, Southern exterior concealed something intense and knowing. The Georgia Peach had clues to solving the murder, after all (and I have the sense that she might have been the murderer once)!
For my part, I did love playing men. I liked to imagine what it would be like to have a voice that really was a couple octaves lower, that reverberated in my abdomen. And ironically, this habit of play led, in part, to my eventual self-consciousness in middle school, when a friend pointed out in front of everyone that I always made a goofy deep voice when I was impersonating someone. Before this, though, gender-bending was a source of good fun, at least in the context of our staged performances, when it was totally safe.
It’s tough to say whether this is more about who I am now (an academic who works in feminist theory), or what our lives were like then, but gender looms large in these reflections for me. Our moms are another example of this…though I want to say it a little bit differently than Sharon did. Specifically, I never thought of Sharon’s mom as “not working.” Yes, those of us who have taken a women’s studies class or two can give the speech about women’s work as being devalued, etc.–but even before I had a chance to thematize this explicitly, as a kid I always thought of her mother as busy and industrious, if not overworked. There were moms at our rich private school who I did think of as not working (the moms in the Junior League, who drove Suburbans), but Sharon’s mom wasn’t one of them.
My own mother, as I said, had a job as a government bureaucrat…something that I was intensely proud of her for, despite the fact that I distinctly remember kids at school being a bit snarky about it. Very few of the kids we went to school with had mothers working outside the home (we were, as Sharon put it, less wealthy than basically everyone else), and it was always a bit weird to see the class-lines drawn in the afternoons when the vast majority of the kids would get picked up at 3 in the afternoon, while the rest of us found our way to after-care. I loved after-care, and in my later years, when I became aware of the political implications of “working mothers” and daycare, my defense of women’s rights to the employment of their choice was always on some level a heated defense of my own mother, who I idealized as the ultimate career woman, and beyond reproach.
So gender roles and performances are always in a certain sense in the background of these stories for me, even if I can’t say for sure what that means. I’ll end, though, with a story that is, again, about our imaginations, our mothers, and performing:
Sharon used to have one of those plastic houses in her backyard, the kind with a door and a fake kitchen (with a plastic telephone!) and shutters. We played in it for a long time, but at some point (I think after we got too big to fit inside it comfortably) it was packed away or moved. The spot on which it stood was bare ground, and after it rained (which it does frequently in South Louisiana), it became a muddy pit. I believe that Sharon’s parents attempted to rectify this by putting sand on top of it. Anyway, because one of our favorite games to play was Stall-the-Moms-when-Erin’s-Mom-Comes-to-Get-Her, we decided to try to use this muddy pit to our advantage. Our preferred method of stalling was to construct some outlandish scenario that involved my vanishing, in an effort to trick our mothers into believing in the same warped metaphysics to which we subscribed, in which plastic jewels transported one to unicorn realms, and people dematerialized or trans-substantiated at will. This one particular time, I hit upon the idea of suggesting that the mud-and-sand patch was actually a quicksand pit, and getting Sharon to claim that I had been sucked under. So, to make this more believable, I took my shoes off and stepped into the squishy mud, leaving 4-6 inch deep little foot prints. Believing that these would be enough forensic evidence to fool anyone, I jumped out of the mud and hid around the corner of the house, while Sharon ran inside and exclaimed that I was missing, having been sucked into the quicksand. Bringing our moms outside and gesturing dramatically to the footprint-docked mud, she exclaimed “Look! She got sucked under!” (or something like that) Somewhat disappointingly, my mother replied, “Uh huh. Where is she?”
Where I was, of course, was behind the house, trying desperately to hold up my end of the performance: being quiet. I wasn’t particularly good at this role, though, and my giggling–and trying,unsuccessfully, not to pee on myself–gave me away.